Friedlander: ACC Tournament magic set the stage for Cardiac Pack's amazing 1983 national title run
RALEIGH — They aren’t the best team ever to win a national championship.
Not even close.
They are, however, one of the most memorable. If not the most memorable.
Ask any college basketball fan to name the team that cut down the nets in 1993, 2003 or even as recently as 2013 and they’ll probably have to Google it to give you the answer.
It’s current ACC members North Carolina, Syracuse and Louisville, for the record.
Now ask them who claimed the crown in 1983.
Not only will they be able to tell you off the top of their head who it was, they’ll also likely know how they won it and what happened in the immediate aftermath.
The images of NC State’s Lorenzo Charles dunking home Dereck Whittenberg’s airball to stun heavily favored Houston, and coach Jim Valvano frantically running around the court looking for somebody to hug in celebration are so iconic that they’re immediately recognized even by those who weren’t around when they happened.
Proof of that came last month during a ceremony honoring the surviving members of the Cardiac Pack at halftime of the current Wolfpack’s game against Wake Forest at PNC Arena.
The outpouring of love from the 16,000 fans in attendance spoke to how long it’s been since NC State fans have had something substantive to celebrate. And how meaningful an accomplishment the ‘83 championship really was.
Especially to those who accomplished it.
“Forty years later, this is as special as it was in 1983,” said Thurl Bailey, the team’s leading scorer and rebounder that season. “The biggest part for all of us is to be out there in front of those people who went on that journey with us and even the ones who weren’t born yet, to understand what it meant.
“This is going to be passed down for generations. What we did, the way we did it doesn’t happen very often.”
39 years ago today…
Lorenzo Charles' game-winning dunk gave NC State a National Championship.
— Raleighwood Scott (@ScottNCSU) April 4, 2022
The Cinderella journey, a 6-game March to immortality, has been preserved for posterity by Whittenberg through his ESPN 30 for 30 presentation “Survive and Advance.” It was a magical run that included some of the most improbable comebacks, close calls and upsets in NCAA Tournament history.
But it’s a story that never would have been written, never mind remembered four decades later as the ACC gathers this week in Greensboro, if not for an equally amazing run a week earlier at an earlier conference Tournament.
The legend that has grown over time is that the Wolfpack needed to run the table at Atlanta’s Omni to secure its ticket to the Big Dance.
That may or may not actually have been the case.
At this point it doesn’t matter.
Valvano and his desperate team left nothing to chance by winning 3 games in as many days, by a combined total of 11 points, to claim the conference championship and begin the momentum that would eventually lead to an even bigger prize.
First a short history lesson.
As surprising as State’s postseason run was, the team was anything but a fluke. It was 7-2 and ranked 16th in the nation on Jan. 12 when Whittenberg, who made 7 3-pointers and scored 27 points in the 1st half, broke his foot against No. 2 Virginia, which featured Ralph Sampson.
The Wolfpack lost that game and 3 of the next 4 to fall off the national radar. But they gradually got their mojo back once Whittenberg returned to the lineup in late February. They rolled into the postseason by scoring 130 points on Senior Night at Reynolds Coliseum in a blowout win against Wake Forest.
They should have saved some of those points for the rematch a few days later in their ACC Tournament opener. They barely held on to win 71-70 to earn a semifinal date with arch-rival North Carolina, the defending national champion and nation’s top ranked team.
“We had just beaten them by 40, scored 130 points six days earlier and now we needed a miracle to beat them again,” prominent broadcaster Terry Gannon, then a freshman guard, recalled about the Wake Forest game. “When we got to the locker room someone, and I can’t remember who it was, said, ‘We’re the team of destiny! It was never in doubt!’”
Neither was the game against the Tar Heels, as it turned out.
Despite being down by 6 with just over 2 minutes remaining in regulation in an era without a shot clock, against coach Dean Smith’s trademark 4 Corners stall, State still managed to claw its way back. It forced overtime after UNC’s Sam Perkins rimmed out what would have been a game-winning jumper.
The Wolfpack found itself down by 6 again in overtime. But it rallied again.
With Michael Jordan having fouled out and Whittenberg suddenly recovering from a dreadful shooting performance, they defied the odds and pulled away for a 91-84 victory.
“I didn’t have a good game,” Whittenberg said recently. “The best part of it for me was in overtime.”
That’s putting it mildly.
He was 2-of-11 from the floor in regulation before scoring 11 of his 15 points in overtime. That includes a stretch of 9 straight to key a 15-2 State run to close out the game.
“We never really panicked, we never thought we were out of the game,” Whittenberg said. “We trusted our coach and knew what we needed to do. And we got lucky. They missed 3 1-and-1s. If they had made 1 of those, you might not be talking to me right now.”
It was about that time that the earlier “Team of Destiny” joke stopped being a joke.
At least in the minds of the players.
“It bolstered us more, beating Carolina in overtime,” tournament MVP and former State coach Sidney Lowe said. “We just beat Wake Forest twice, we beat Carolina and now we’re in the championship. After that you felt like you could beat anyone.”
Anyone, including Virginia and its 7-4 superstar Sampson, the 3-time national Player of the Year.
Cool look at @PackMensBball 1983 ACC Tournament victory over Virginia and Ralph Sampson with a surprise appearance from … James Jordan, Michael's dad.
A pretty good reminder of what the tournament meant 40 years ago. https://t.co/WfZzDyLhph
— Brian Murphy (@murphsturph) March 6, 2023
This time, the Wolfpack didn’t need any miracle comebacks. They held on to beat the Cavaliers 81-78 when the much shorter Gannon stripped the ball from Sampson as he was preparing to shoot and Whittenberg made 2 clinching free throws to clinch the title.
“If Perkins’ shot at the end of regulation goes in, who knows if any of this happens,” Gannon said of the semifinal win against UNC. “So we got in the locker room after that game, looked at each other and now it’s a little more serious. ‘Team of Destiny!’ Then we beat Ralph and now we believed it. We were the Team of Destiny. It was complete and we couldn’t lose after that.”
Not that they didn’t try.
It took 2 more seemingly impossible come-from-behind efforts against Pepperdine and UNLV to survive and advance in the NCAA West Regional.
And the rest is history.
“Those (ACC Tournament) games were kind of the catalyst to that run,” said Bailey. “It doesn’t seem like 40 years. That means time flies.”
Bailey had to pause for a moment to regain his composure after getting choked up remembering his late teammates Charles and Quint Leonard, assistant coach Ed McLean and Valvano.
He then said that the passage of time has only helped him and the other remaining team members become more appreciative of what they did in 1983.
And what their heroics mean to others.
‘’83 team being honored. Big hand for Thurl Bailey and Sidney Lowe. And all of them. pic.twitter.com/YNgDwo4vtT
— Chip Alexander (@ice_chip) February 23, 2023
It’s why they continue to get together as frequently as possible and stay in touch through a group text thread.
Surprisingly, neither the team as a whole nor any of its members are enshrined in the NC Sports Hall of Fame. It’s an oversight Whittenberg is lobbying to correct.
At the same time, though, their absence from the shrine illustrates how just how much the better the Cardiac Pack were than the sum of their parts.
“This group has a special bond that we accomplished something together as a team. And it’s going to carry on forever,” Bailey said. “I go to games in the NBA and someone wants my autograph. I think they want it because I played in the NBA. But they’ll say ‘that was a great game in ‘83.’
“It impacted so many people, not just in North Carolina. Everywhere. The greatest feeling is that we haven’t been forgotten.”